Here at Cinephile City, we like to run a regular column called Movie of the Moment, where we talk about how a given film perfectly defines the era in which it was released. Well, looking at the imminent release of SPECTRE, we realized that just about every James Bond film is a movie of its moment. So we’re celebrating James Bond Week with Movie of the Moment pieces all week long, each about a different Bond film. Enjoy!
It has been said that the 1963 James Bond film From Russia With Love was John F. Kennedy’s favorite movie, but that’s not exactly true. The novel was Kennedy’s favorite book: the James Bond style, the women, the cloak-and-dagger intrigue, all of them defined and romanticized Kennedy’s view of the Cold War. Kennedy did see the movie version of From Russia With Love, but very little has been written about that, for he was assassinated in Dallas a month later.
It’s especially interesting Kennedy loved that particular book, because most of the early Bond books are closer in tone to sci-fi adventures than the hard intrigue of From Russia With Love. The second book in the James Bond series was Moonraker, published a full seven years before Kennedy announced America’s intention to land on the moon, and there’s a fair amount of sci-fi involved in Dr. No and Thunderball as well.
By contrast, although the villain in From Russia With Love is nominally the secret spy organization SPECTRE, both of the SPECTRE agents aiming for Bond are Russian and they might as well be standing in for their homeland. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems like the selection of Goldfinger was a U-turn in response to Kennedy’s death: one year after James Bond’s gritty spy maneuvers with the Soviet Union, the next film was an action romp in which there are no Russians to be found.
Although many of the modern James Bond tropes originated in From Russia With Love — it was the first film to have Q, the gadgets, and the hyper-stylized title sequence — Goldfinger was the movie where James Bond became the James Bond we know today. The Aston Martin. Bond’s mocking tone with Q and romantic jousting with Miss Moneypenny. It’s all present here, and many of those tropes would survive all the way into the post-modern Bond played by Daniel Craig.
And Sean Connery doesn’t seem happy about it. Not one bit.
Bond has always been defined by contempt. The casual racism in some of the early Fleming novels is stunning, even for the time, and only with Craig have the movies dared to comment on how misogynistic a character Bond has been. Moreover, the movie Bond has been defined by a thin glaze of contempt for the world which he is constantly saving. It’s the sort of contempt that American movies of the 1980s had for Vietnam War protestors: You weren’t there, man, Bond seems to be thinking. You haven’t been shot at. You don’t know.
For Connery, and in none of his films more than Goldfinger, Bond’s contempt seems aimed squarely at the movie itself. The meeting with Q establishes a joke which would run until the final Pierce Brosnan film, with Q urging 007 to return the gear intact and Bond having none of it. The joke is established with Bond’s dry line, “you’d be surprised with all the wear and tear that goes on in the field,” and Connery slathers it in the contempt for the lab-bound Q. You weren’t there, man. You don’t know. The implication is that such theatrics are well beneath Bond, even as he hunts a gold-obsessed madman who likes to murder women by covering them in gold paint.
Part of that is simply because it makes the movie more entertaining for Bond to be having fun. But part of it is Connery’s performance, which is one of the first in an action film of any kind to be winking at the audience. Wise-assed jokes such as the response to hearing the name of Honor Blackman’s character Pussy Galore, “I must be dreaming,” are designed to draw only one kind of laugh from the audience, and it’s not one that movies aimed for too often in those days. It’s more akin to Bruce Willis’ wisecracks in Die Hard, where the character is all alone and the jokes are for no one but the audience.
One has to wonder if the contempt is aimed at the series itself, and its nearly palpable retreat from Cold War battlefields. After the Cuban missile crisis and the partitioning of Berlin, each of which was a confrontation that could have instigated nuclear war, America and Russia alike seemed to step away from direct challenges. Proxy battlefields like Vietnam and Afghanistan would become the norm, but direct conflicts which might instigate nuclear war became a thing of the past. Only the most intense hawks wanted to fight the Cold War face to face, and 007 has always been the hawkiest of hawks.
The only time that Connery’s expression is deadly serious is during the action sequences. The man is a professional, of course, so when it’s life and death for Bond, it’s life and death for the actor. But it also seems that Bond as a character was wishing for life-and-death stakes in the service of the real world, as opposed trading jabs with to a cartoon character. The emotion might have even been shared by Connery; his contempt for Bond and the related typecasting mirrored Bond’s contempt for Goldfinger. Perhaps if Bond had stayed as gritty as From Russia With Love, his attitude would have been different.
There could not be two consecutive films about the same character more different than From Russia With Love and Goldfinger. It’s as if the third Harry Potter film was a bawdy sex comedy. The radical shift mirrors the change in the politics of the day, and it foresees the character that audiences would want to see Bond become. But that doesn’t mean everyone was on board with it. It’s the only film where Bond feels contemptuous of where his own film was going. The only question is if the actor who made the role felt the same way.
Mark Young is the editor of Cinephile City. Follow him on Twitter: @mm_young